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Mount Jumbo sheep

Sheep graze above Missoula on Mount Jumbo.

MOUNT JUMBO - A June night falls with reluctance on Enrique Marquez Banda's camp just off the "L" trail.

The city at his feet is a world away. The 600 sheep Marquez tends are a 45-minute horseback ride up the mountain, bedded down atop the elephant's rump. The ever-present breeze is light up here tonight and, yes, it's quite a vista.

"Muy bonita," Marquez agrees as he relaxes in a Bubba chair outside the wagon. He points across the Rattlesnake Valley, and adds, "Me gusta de la Norte."

"I like the North Hills," translates Kayla Romberger. "I'm always longing for the North Hills."

Romberger has become a friend and confidante of Marquez. A 2008 graduate of art school at the University of Montana, her work in conservation lands with Missoula Parks and Recreation includes helping the amiable Marquez understand what his employers want of him, and vice versa, as the sheep attack noxious weeds that choke the city-owned hills to the north and east of town.

The North Hills, where Marquez herded sheep in May and will return in late fall, are more secluded from the hustle and bustle and provide a better view of Fourth of July fireworks than his station last year above East Missoula.

Marquez, 57, comes each spring from a small, poor town in Mexico's largest state, Chihuahua. He makes occasional trips down the hill to town - for provisions, for a July dip in Rattlesnake Creek, for a day at the fair in August.

He is unmarried, but his job in Montana and the roughly $800 monthly checks provide sustenance to an extended family back home, which will wait for him in late fall to make a two-day cattle drive to market.

He seems delighted by the bottle of Jose Cuervo a visitor has waiting when he rides into camp.

"The most beautiful women and the best tequila come from Chihuahua," Marquez reports, with a wide, gap-toothed smile.

An occasional hiker wanders by, but nothing like the steady stream up the "M" trail on Mount Sentinel. Interstate 90 and the streets of town are their busy, noisy summer selves. Cars drive away disappointed from the Osprey baseball game down the river after another loss to the Billings Mustangs.

Marquez's steel-gray gelding, Magic, lounges above the trail, an unsaddled silhouette captured by skyline. A border collie named Spook, once his nemesis, rests in peace under the white-topped wagon that serves for the third summer as Marquez's home away from home. Far, far from home.

He first traveled to Montana by bus from Mexico two years ago. He'd been hired by Missoula rancher John Stahl through the Mountain Plains Agricultural Service to handle what Marquez thought were cattle.

He is a horseman - "one of the best I've ever seen," Stahl says - but Marquez had never worked with sheep when he left his family's ranch near Madera in the Sierra Madres, the Mexican extension of these Rocky Mountains.

He knew no English, and knows little today.

"I was so nervous I barely ever left the bus," says Marquez through his translator. "And every time the bus stopped I'd ask the driver, 'Are we in Missoula, Montana?' and show him my papers.

" 'No, no. Not even close,' he'd say."

The bus reached a place called Butte on a sleety spring night. Marquez blames the ticket he received at the border crossing at Nogales, but "he thought Butte was the end of the line," Stahl says.

Soaked to the bone, hungry, peso-less, and with little idea where he was or where he was supposed to be, Marquez eventually found someone who showed him to "a little house at a church where people could stay," he says, via Romberger.

"When I got there, it was full."

Ultimately, a bed was found, and food for the hungry man. Marquez had subsisted on nothing but soda crackers for three days.

"I was so joyful when they found a room," he says.

He learned that a bus was leaving for Missoula at 6 a.m. the next day.

"But I forgot how to get to the bus station," Marquez recalls.

He wandered through the entire town of Butte, once again in the rain and snow, before resigning himself to another night at the mission. Meantime, Stahl and his Spanish-speaking niece were high and dry at the Missoula bus station.

"By the time we get this call that he was in Butte, they'd already closed (the bus station) for the night and we had no idea what was going on, and it's snowing," Stahl says. "So here I am, I knew he didn't have clothes for snow in Butte, and I'm all worried about where he was."

Stahl made a call to friends in Butte, who located Marquez at the mission and helped him catch the correct bus the next day. At just before 8 p.m., Marquez had his first glimpse of Missoula.

"The report we got over there (at Butte) was that he was an incredibly neat guy and just a joy to be around," says Stahl. "So we already knew that we had a good one before he got here."

Marquez points and waves his arms, warming up to the story.

"I had no idea where I arrived. I don't even know now which part of Missoula," he says, in Spanish. "I get off the bus, nervous, and I hear this voice: 'Hey, Enrique.' And it was John, and he brought his niece, who knew a little Spanish. Right away I knew John was a good man. He gave me clothes. He made me feel comfortable."

Even at that point Marquez assumed he was going to work cows.

He didn't learn otherwise until the next morning. Stahl took him to the sheep in the North Hills.

"This is when I'm ready to see the cattle. But then John looks at me and says, 'Well, here's the sheep and here's Spook, and there's two (Marenna) guard dogs as well. You can put them to the left or the right. You know what to do.' "

Uh, John.

"I said: What is my work? Is it true I'm working with sheep?" Marquez says.

Stahl said yes.

"I say no. I work with cattle," exclaims Marquez. "I feel so sad, and I tell John, I don't know how to work with sheep. Even my papers told me when I signed up for the job that I'd be working on a cattle ranch. I was so angry. … John didn't understand any of this, really, because he doesn't speak Spanish. I said I have to go. Adios. Goodbye."

Stahl wouldn't hear of it. Or didn't.

"He never told me that he was ready to go home," Stahl says now.

Stahl strove to convince his would-be shepherd to stay and learn the ways of the woollies.

Marquez did, mostly on the North Hills of Missoula that first year. Partly out of friendship and his love for Stahl, he has returned the past two Mays on six-month work visas to guide the sheep that now spread out over the steeper, more coyote-infested slopes of Jumbo, as well as shorter stints on the west side of the Rattlesnake.

Marquez learned to work with Spook, a dog he believes hated him at first. He's found just how valuable the Marennas, a breed of dog nurtured in Italy for its herd-guarding skills, can be.

He's figured out this summer, as have the coyotes, the dogs are passive guards in the daylight hours. That's when the coyotes have learned to prey on young lambs.

A people person at heart, Marquez has butted against a language barrier that alienates him from most of those who bustle in the valley below.

And he's learned the ways of sheep.

"I watch him work them and I'm just amazed," says Stahl. "He can move a whole herd of sheep and hardly do anything. He's got it down so he knows where to place himself to stop the herd and move the herd.

"Let's put it this way. I had a chance at hiring an American herder this year. But because Enrique is so well-trained and knows the program so well, I wouldn't hire the American. It would take me too much time to teach a new one."

Marquez has embraced the challenge.

"I have complete responsibility for these sheep at this time," he says.

He makes sure they're eating what they should be eating - weeds. So it's always a matter of making sure they're in the right spots on the hills.

The sheep are there to take out the leafy spurge. This year they seem to be chomping especially well on the blossoms of dalmatian toadflax, said Morgan Valliant, who manages the city of Missoula's weed-control program. They'll attack the hated spotted knapweed on Jumbo's saddle when the time and purple flowers are ripe.

They munched on the North Hills through most of May after Marquez arrived. There, a couple of sheep were killed or maimed by domestic dogs, which troubles their herder, who had trouble communicating with the dog owners.

The sheep were over to the face of Jumbo in late May, and in a few weeks will be pushed toward the saddle. Later they'll go farther north on the North Hills, and then maybe clean up some leftovers on Waterworks Hill later in the fall.

Coyotes have posed a significant problem on Mount Jumbo. Last Tuesday, Marquez saw a three-legged adult and a couple of her pups, animals responsible for the deaths of at least three lambs in the past several days.

"It's just difficult, because I have no means to do anything about the coyotes," Marquez says.

Stahl says he's looking into using a federal agent to shoot the coyotes, who cost him $100 for each lamb kill. Stahl breaks less than even on his monthly $1,300 contract with the city after paying Marquez and other expenses, which add up to $1,350. He makes his profit from the volume of sheep he can pasture on public land.

It's 3 p.m. when Marquez appears above the rooftops of East Missoula.

He wears a straw vaquero hat and red neckerchief. Marquez reins Magic toward the gulch behind a Liquid Assets warehouse. Spook trails behind.

Man, horse and dog seem to lumber along a diagonal path up the pea-green mountainside. But in the time it takes to jot these words, they've disappeared into pine trees that line Canon del Coyote.

This is another manifestation of the sheep project on Jumbo. Canon del Coyote is one of two that cut down the side of the mountain on this side. The other is the Canyon of the Deer, according to Stahl.

Other landmarks they've labeled include Dos Arboles, or what Marquez sometimes jokingly calls "Two Treesies," midway between Missoula and East Missoula; The Crack, which goes up the west face to the right of the "L"; the Border, a gulch that serves as the northernmost boundary of the sheep range above the Rattlesnake; and Paul Bunyan's Chair, a chunk of mountain facing the University of Montana that has sloughed off and looks, claims Stahl, "like a big ol' chair."

"When I'm talking to Enrique on the phone and I ask, where are you? And he says 'Coyote Canyon,' I know he needs me on that side of the mountain," says Stahl.

Marquez's parents died young. He has three sisters and is third oldest of five brothers in Madera. They lived with their grandparents, and Marquez quit school at age 8 to go to work. His grandmother, especially, "was hard on us and wanted us to work."

They did, and most of the family remains where it was 50 years ago, in country Marquez says is just as mountainous as Montana but with more trees than Missoula and decidedly less water. When 5 inches of snow were dumped on Jumbo in early June, it was the first snow he'd seen since he was a child.

"When I called home and told them about it, most of them started laughing," he says. "They didn't even believe me."

The sheep stayed in that day. Marquez feared they'd eat the only plant that wasn't battered down by moisture, the purple lupine, which can be poisonous if consumed in large doses.

He's still a cattleman at heart.

"Mostly I come back because I care for John so much and I don't want to anger him," Marquez says.

He loves working with the enigmatic sheep now, he professes. Eventually, though, his contract with Stahl will run out.

"It has been a real good experience despite all the problems," he says. "I probably will return to working with the cattle."

Missoula's weed eradication program will go on - for many more years if it's going to be effective, Stahl says, long after he's gotten out of the sheep business.

Marquez, who worked on a cattle ranch in New Mexico for seven years before he came north, won't be around when and if the leafy spurge and knapweed are finally gone from the slopes of Mount Jumbo.

But he will have left his mark, no?

Reach reporter Kim Briggeman at (406) 523-5266 or by e-mail at kbriggeman@missoulian.com. Reach photographer Michael Gallacher at (406) 523-5270 or at mgallacher@missoulian.com.

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